2021 Season Review: Richmond – A dramatic fall from grace

The Tigers failed miserably in 2021, failing to back up their past two premierships (Photo - AFL)

All good things must come to an end and after four years of historic highs, Richmond was always going to experience a drop-off.

But not many would have predicted their fall from grace to be so swift, with the Tigers plummeting down the ladder in the second half of the season to miss the finals for the first time since 2016.

With a markedly similar list to the club that won the previous two premierships, early form gave the impression Richmond would once again figure in flag calculations come season’s end.

As the season continued and injuries waged against the Tigers’ list, late-season losses cruelled their chances, and a lack in form caused them to surprisingly miss the finals.

Despite the fall from grace, glimpses of Richmond’s best football was still on full display in many games, namely in clutch wins over the Bulldogs and Essendon when their grit and brilliance came to the fore in big final quarter efforts.

But it was in tight losses to the likes of West Coast, Port Adelaide, and Fremantle where Richmond’s season was derailed, as some costly final term fade-outs against Gold Coast and Collingwood meant the Tigers missed out on September action in a shocking change to the AFL hierarchy.

What worked?

When the Tigers were at their best, they were still scintillating to watch and untouchable by any of their competitors.

Only Geelong seemed to have consistently worked out their game plan and thwarted any deficiencies, while other sides still struggled to contain the Tigers when their form was up.

Early wins against St Kilda and the Bulldogs proved their worth when their best players contributed, as the likes of Dustin Martin, Tom Lynch, and Shai Bolton all played valuable roles in these confidence-boosting victories.

In last-minute dashes against the Giants (where they came from the clouds to triumph by four points) and Brisbane, Richmond proved they had the feel for clutch moments – a trait that still hasn’t left their famous DNA.

Another big win for the Tigers was the blooding of young talent, as the slip in form at least gave them the opportunity to get some senior experience into their youth.

Players like Riley Collier-Dawkins, Callum Coleman-Jones, Rhyan Mansell, Thomson Dow, and Jack Ross all got more time throughout the back half of the season and all had strong moments.

Jake Aarts’ presence as a small forward continued to grow, while the development of Sydney Stack and re-deployment of Daniel Rioli as running half-backs were shining lights out of a miserable finish to the season.

What didn’t?

Without some of their star players, and form disappearing from many of their established keys, Richmond looked incredibly vulnerable in a quick space of time.

Injuries to Dustin Martin, Shai Bolton, Nick Vlastuin, and Noah Balta all came at harmful times, cruelling the Tigers of their key players as they pushed to rediscover their premiership touch.

Their defence became leaky, with the loss of Bachar Houli, Vlastuin, and Balta all resulting in opposition teams exploiting them with strong tall forwards.

Tom Lynch’s variable form came as a problem, leaving Jack Riewoldt to do it all. Despite his continued brilliance, Riewoldt’s aging body wouldn’t allow him to shoulder the entire load towards more September action, as a lack of contribution from Jason Castagna and co when it mattered prevented the Tigers from generating consistent winning scores.

This was evident in big losses down the back half of the season, as poor offensive efforts against St Kilda and GWS in their final few games meant they never had a chance of arresting their form slump and consolidating their spot in the top eight.

Who impressed?

When fit, Shai Bolton’s dynamic evolution as one of the competition’s elite midfielders came to the fore.

In the opening months of the season, Bolton was electric, including in Richmond’s opening round see-sawing win over the Blues in the blockbuster Thursday night clash. He was also brilliant in the Dreamtime at the ‘G win over Essendon, thrusting Richmond over the line in a remarkable finish out west.

It was a similar story for Dustin Martin, who was instrumental throughout the first half of the season before slipping out of form and eventually succumbing to injury.

Jack Riewoldt had a solid season, once again leading from the front up forward and securing his spot as the lynchpin of the Tigers attacking group.

But Dylan Grimes was the best for Richmond throughout the entire year, taking home his first Jack Dyer Medal with a thoroughly consistent season holding together the Tigers’ undermanned defensive group. His attack on aerial contests and ability to create from the back half became a shining light in a tough year.

Jack Graham went to another level in the midfield, picking up the slack left by the absences of Dion Prestia, Dustin Martin, and Shai Bolton for major parts of the year, while Liam Baker’s development continued, finishing equal second in the Tigers’ best and fairest count.

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Season Highlight

With their season starting to derail, the Tigers desperately needed a win in their Round Nine clash against the Giants.

Having beaten GWS in the 2019 Grand Final, many expected the Tigers to run amok and continue their strong form over the Giants, but GWS came out firing.

Facing a big deficit and a soul-crushing loss, it was Liam Baker’s 33 disposal game and four goals to Dustin Martin that led a late comeback. With the result growing in importance, Richmond surged back into the contest to stay three points behind at three quarter time, before snatching a four-point lead that they held until the final siren.

Season Lowlight

For the Tigers, their season clearly crumbled in a cruel three-week spell in late June and early July. A 40-point loss to the Saints came as a massive shock, particularly when they were restricted to a historically low total of 22 points for the match.

But it got worse the next week, falling to Gold Coast at Marvel Stadium by 10 points the following Thursday night.

The sorry three-week period continued the following week at the MCG where the Tigers seemed to be cruising to a redemptive win at the MCG the following Sunday against familiar foes in Collingwood.

With a comfortable lead up until the final change, the Tigers’ renowned last quarter never came, as the Pies flipped the script to emerge from nowhere and claim a remarkable 16-point lead that would prove incredibly costly for Richmond’s slipping finals hopes.

Chopping block?

Despite many of their list having claimed at least one premiership from the past few years, there are some Tigers who dropped off this season and now face a do-or-die period to prove their worth.

Sydney Stack’s late-season renaissance may prove crucial to him maintaining a spot on Richmond’s list, as his off-field controversies and form slump seemed problematic for his career until he returned to the side late in the year and put in some solid performances.

Daniel Rioli is a strong three-time premiership player, but his days up forward appeared numbered halfway throughout the year. Fortunately, his return to the backline gave him some versatility which may just save his career and extend his time at Punt Road.

Patrick Naish, who struggled to get a chance in the side even when injuries cruelled the Tigers’ first team became the first Tiger delisting of the off-season.

The experience of Josh Caddy was important in two out of the three flags, but he has now lost form and dropped out of favour at Richmond. If the Tigers wish to look to youth, he may be forced out for some draft picks in the upcoming draft.

Lastly, the exciting signs from Matthew Parker late in the season may have been enough to give him an extended role at Punt Road in the future, as the journeyman’s vibrancy up forward was enough to gain plaudits.

Number one off-season priority

With the likes of David Astbury and Bachar Houli retiring, their departures leave big holes in the backline. Going forward, the Tigers can’t continually rely on solely Noah Balta and Dylan Grimes to cover tall forwards, so Richmond will be looking to bolster their tall defensive stocks to become tighter in 2022.

Richmond has a rather complete list, but more ruck support for Toby Nankervis and Mabior Chol, as well as more hard-nosed midfielders to cover for the nearing retirement of captain Trent Cotchin, would be crucial to supporting Richmond’s potential return to finals in the upcoming years.

Final Say

There’s no doubt that Richmond’s year was a horrible drop-off that many Tigers fans wouldn’t have expected.

Despite showing some of their trademark best in spurts, Richmond crashed and missing the finals would come as a massive shock for a dynasty side.

The jury is out on whether this is a one-year aberration or a continual landslide, but for Richmond’s sake, they’ll be hoping they can return to their dominant best in 2022.

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